Confessions About the Covid Crazies

by Janis Patterson

How are you surviving the Covid lockdown, which – thankfully – is finally fading away?

While my office is in my home and I don’t go out too much in normal times (which, please Heaven, are finally coming back!) just the idea of not being able to go out or have any place to go to have driven me crazy. Crazier.

For the first time in many years I am not face-up against a deadline, usually multiple deadlines, which come racing at me like an express train. Well, I do have one, but it isn’t until October, and the way this year has been going who of us is positive there is even going to be an October this year?

And that’s why this post is so frightfully late. I forgot until last night, when the lights were out, our goodnights said and The Husband had drifted off to sleep. Suddenly I remembered and sat bolt upright, gasping at my unprofessionalism. Dragged from sleep he wanted to know what was wrong, but when I told him he merely snorted and said to go back to sleep. The sad thing is I did, which is very unlike me. This lockdown has activated my inner sloth – I chose the sloth as my spirit animal a few years ago when a prolonged bed rest was dictated while recuperating from a surgery, and the wee little beastie has played havoc with my work ethic ever since.

One good thing about this lockdown is that The Husband is only working half weeks – 2 ½ days – and this makes a perfect rehearsal for when he retires in the not-too-distant future. One thing I’ve learned – he is ignorant of the writing process, as I do 95% of it when he’s not here. Plus, he’s a science person, not a word person. I’ve been writing in our den for years, and not too long ago made the decision to turn the guest room into my office, a task about which I have been distressingly dilatory. I need to get on it NOW, so when he does retire fully I can retreat in there. I’m working on it every day, and trying to decide whether or not I can install a moat.

Plus, during this time of plague I have been slowly morphing from a writer who works at home into a housewife, a strange and alien creature I have never been before. I’ve been excavating the dining room (verb chosen deliberately) and for the last three days sorting through ancient tax papers that go back to 2007. So far The Husband has taken two enormous tubs of old papers to his office to shred in their commercial shredder.

I won’t bore you with tales of the strange wonders I’ve found during this time of excavation, but I did find my iron which I lost several years ago. It’s a fine example of cleaning making more work for you, because now I’m going to have to go to the trouble of losing it again, and do you know how hard it is to lose an iron?

Well, the clock is ticking (yes, we still have one that ticks, a Seth-Thomas kitchen clock that was a wedding present to my father’s parents in 1899) and I need to get this posted. I hope you all – assuming you have read this far – are safe and well and all in your world is good. Please take care of yourselves and believe we will get through this. At least, I hope so, because housework is making me crazy! Crazier.

We Are The Other?

Janis Patterson

In these tiresome days of Political Correctness and ‘woke-dom’ there is a small battle raging about using italics for non-English words in book manuscripts. “It is divisive,” shriek the PC crowd. “It fosters other-ness and is not inclusive.”

Well, duh!

When speaking of a book written in English for the use of an English-speaking audience, of course the writer should use italics for foreign words and phrases. The words are foreign words, not English words – they are ‘other.’ Italics show that. It’s not divisiveness, it’s clarity, showing the reader that this is a different language. Some words in other languages are spelled the same but have wildly different meanings. (For example : douche (French) and douche (English) while having the same familial root are totally different things.) Without italics to differentiate what is English and what is another language, the reader can be confused and pulled out of the story to puzzle it through, and no writer wants that. Of course, that homophonic mayhem happens in all-English books, too – if I read one more story that mixes up ‘grizzly’ and ‘grisly’ that book, like a number of others, will end up smashing against the wall. Words are the tools of the writer, and one should learn to use one’s tools properly. To do less is to disrespect both the art of writing and the intelligence of the reader.

To make things even more confusing, the PC crowd applauds the use of a bunch of weird self-chosen pronouns that a small portion of the population uses to describe themselves which, while doubtless emotionally satisfying to them, are linguistically and societally bizarre. How can there be anything else but a deliberate ‘other-ness’ when an individual refers to him/her/itself as ‘they’? Talk about mixed signals!

Of course an individual has the right to call themselves anything they like; that is freedom of speech in its purest form and is guaranteed under the First Amendment. Those who want to use the ‘new’ pronouns are most definitely free to do so, but no one has the right to demand that everyone else use them, most especially in a written format. The result is a linguistic minefield.

The essence of language is communication. Language is nothing but a collection of sounds and syllables to convey ideas, but it only works if everyone understands what those sounds and syllables mean. This is especially true for writers, for they must communicate by written symbols only, without the supporting means of vocal intonation and facial expressions.

Can you imagine the delicious confusion (or might it be deliberate obfuscation?) in a mystery when a single individual obviously speaking in the first person refers to himself as ‘they’ or ‘we’? How does the poor confounded detective/sleuth react, especially if he is not up to speed on this linguistic trend? That could almost be a subplot in itself.

Conversely, the essence of communication – especially for writers and the written word – is language. We need the same reference points, the same starting points for efficient interaction. Standard linguistics offer this universal base. If a non-English word in an English language book is italicized, everyone knows it is not English, even if it is identical in spelling to an English word with a totally different meaning. If a writer uses the ‘new’ pronoun structure, he’d better have a really good reason that forwards the story or risk confusing and perhaps even alienating his readers.

Years ago someone coined the phrase K I S S – Keep It Simple, Stupid (or Silly, depending on to whom you’re talking). It’s still good advice. Good communication is simple, and the foremost tool in the writer’s toolkit.

 

Personal Note – if you have been a reader of this blog for a while doubtless you have been accustomed to seeing my picture with blonde hair. It’s red now, both in the picture and on my head. I finally decided that it would be a charitable act to give the general populace a warning label.

If Seinfeld Can, Why Can’t I?

by Janis Patterson

While The Husband loved the TV show Seinfeld and still occasionally watches DVDs of it, I found it stultifyingly boring and even more uninteresting. It was heralded as a show about nothing, and as far as I am concerned it definitely succeeded. However, it was undeniably popular. (Does that say something about me, or about everyone else?) I much prefer shows in which the actors are attractive, shows in which there is something going on – explosions, genuine humor, dead bodies, passionate kisses on a sunset beach… something!

Still, I have to admit that the show did something right to be so popular and on the air for so long, so I’ve decided to explore its particular trope and find out what made it so successful. Except I can’t find what it is. All I can find is that it is regarded as a show about nothing. (Perhaps a metaphor for the supposed emptiness of modern urban life?)

Okay, I can run with that. Most of our lives are filled with nothing. Oh, we’re busy all the time, usually with things that seem important at the time but have little cosmic impact. Things like deciding what to serve for dinner tonight. (Always a biggie for me, as The Husband is a very picky eater and I am a rather indifferent cook.) Shopping for same. Making lunches in the morning. Laundry – what gets tumble dried and what gets line dried and if any of it gets bleach. Deciding if I really want that cute pair of shoes we saw at the mall. Trying to switch the appointment for a much-needed oil change because that’s the only day I can take an elderly neighbor to a much-more needed dental appointment.

See? All important at that minute, all demanding your immediate attention, but in the grand scheme of things generally dismissed as the minutiae of life. Six months – heck, six weeks – afterward, are you going to remember if you had that oil change on Wednesday or Friday, or if those shoes were the red ones or the blue ones?

So what does this digression have to do with murder? Because everything in a murder is important. How many times does the detective (professional or amateur) bring the miscreant to justice by reason of a single fact uttered some time before? Jessica Fletcher was a master of this – a throwaway line uttered perhaps days ago in the storyline, perhaps at the very beginning of the show, and she remembers it. Worse, I can’t remember it at all. Of course, now that I write mysteries my ‘sleuth’ instinct is honed to dangerous acuity, watching every line and usually being able to figure out what is a clue. That, however, is a reader/viewer trick, trained by far too many hours spent absorbing other people’s stories.

Real detectives, however, don’t have that luxury. They can’t automatically know that the fact so-and-so wore red shoes on Tuesday is important. They have to give every bit of information weight. They don’t have editors and beta readers and directors and cinematographers giving focus to every necessary nuance. I think that’s the main reason most real-life cases are not wound up in 20 chapters or 47 minutes. There is too much everything to deal with and that unfortunately translates to nothing to deal with.

So – I am getting too close to saying something instead of sticking with my intended policy of blogging today on nothing. That’s perhaps fortunate, as I have nothing else to say on nothing.

Stay warm this during this cold winter, write well, read widely and don’t get overwhelmed by nothing.

Stalking Ideas

by Janis Patterson

One of the questions authors are asked the most is “Where do you find your ideas?” – as if ideas were rare and wondrous things as difficult to discover as flawless emeralds. As far as I and most of the writers I know are concerned, there are fewer questions more maddening.

As if one has to ‘find’ ideas. They find us, as ubiquitous as mosquitoes during a lake holiday, and sometimes just about as annoying. For example : you’re working happily on a sophisticated big city humorous mystery, when all of a sudden the sight of an axe in a hardware store brings up a flash of inspiration for a dark and noir-ish story about a suburban serial killer. It lurks at the edge of your consciousness, waiting to leap on every unguarded moment with yet another character or plot twist.

The sleuth you’re trying to write is an urbane, wise-cracking former male model who speaks four languages and not only knows but actually cares about the difference between white tie and black tie evening wear. (Sigh) The sleuth who is trying to creep into your mind is a wise-cracking suburban mom who hates soccer, has a daughter mad for ballet and who, through her knowledge of some arcane middle-class suburban pastime, deduces the killer who has been decimating the neighborhood.

Finally to propitiate the annoying creature you take a few precious hours to make some notes, jot down an idea or two, scrape together the bare bones of an outline and file the results into your bulging Ideas file. (You do keep an Ideas file, don’t you? I have for years. Mine is now roughly the size of Rhode Island.) The only problem is, when you decide the suburban mom has to have a garden, there is the flicker of an idea about a well-known television writer who loves to raise poisonous plants and his encyclopedic knowledge allows him to solve crimes as there is suddenly an epidemic of poisonings on the set of a controversial new series…

See how insidious this is? Before long you’re doing nothing but making notes about possible story ideas while your sophisticated and urbane city detective languishes somewhere in black tie (appropriate to the occasion, of course) waiting for you to come back to him. Ideas are everywhere, and catching them can take over your life.

Now, as we must never forget, I will repeat my mantra – an idea is not a plot. An Idea Is Not A Plot. Repeat that three times every day before you sit down to write. An idea is a situation, a frame, a slice of a singular moment in time. For a successful book, you need hundreds of ideas, and you need to be able to mesh them together seamlessly to provide a workable story. That part is work. Fielding a couple of the bazillions of ideas that flash by you every minute is not.

For the record, my second-most-disliked question is when some bright-eyed naif comes bouncing up (for some reason this is usually a middle-aged male at a cocktail party) and says with the utmost generosity of a Lord Bountiful, “I’ve a wonderful idea for a book – why don’t I tell it to you so you can write the book and we’ll split the money.” If it weren’t so maddening it would be funny to see their faces fall with disbelief when I tell them that ideas are literally everywhere and why would a writer need or even want to borrow ideas when there are more around for free than we could ever even make notes on in our lifetime? Let alone that the writing of the book is the work part, not finding an idea or two.

There have been a few, foolish ones who forge ahead and tell me their idea anyway, apparently convinced that once I hear it I will find it so irresistible and wonderful that I will fall all over myself begging to write it. Huh. Usually this idea is either an improbable farrago of wish-fulfillment or a twisted re-hash of some recent television show. Sigh. Unfortunately, there is nothing in any etiquette book about how to handle this situation and stabbing the innocent but tenacious offender with a cocktail pick is frowned upon. (I say that from sad experience…)

See the problem? It’s not that we have to stalk ideas – it’s that ideas stalk us, continually battering at the gates of our mind until we acknowledge their existence, which diffuses our focus. Perhaps a friend of mine said it best : “It’s not the idea; it’s what you do with it.”

What we do with it – writing the story itself – is the important part.

Ooooh, Shiny!

by Janis Patterson

I’ll admit it. I have a short attention span. I’m all too ready to be distracted by something new and different. Which, incidentally, is why I don’t particularly like series – either writing or reading. I want something new.

I never realized that this failing of mine extended to my own books. Several years ago I was fortunate enough to have two romantic/gothic/mysteries published by the incredible Vinspire Publishing. I was delighted to be with them, as both books are really rather special stories to me and Vinspire is indeed a gem among publishers. Although they are more than half mysteries, they were brought out under my Janis Susan May name instead of the Janis Patterson I now use for mysteries.

Both are set in the mid-to-late 1960s. DARK MUSIC is about a romance writers’ conference (yes, there were such things before RWA was begun in 1980) set in a Canadian resort hotel. Then there’s a freak blizzard trapping the conferees, including the heroine and her ex-husband; then someone starts to murder the romance writers one by one. It was a fun book.

The second book is ECHOES IN THE DARK, about a photographer with a broken leg who gets taken – reluctantly – by her ex-husband to an aged resort hotel in the Arkansas wilderness to join an archaeological dig he is spearheading. The heroine also has a head injury and is prone to hallucinations. When she sees a ghost that isn’t an hallucination, her troubles really start.

Before you ask, when I wrote these two books I was in the throes of a painful breakup of a long-time romance that had gone sour. Writing was cheaper than analysis, and sometimes killing people in pixels is excellent therapy!

These are both good books. I like them and enjoyed writing them. I didn’t realize how I had pretty much forgotten about them. Then Vinspire started bundling their books and asked what we were doing to PR them. I was ashamed to admit even to myself that I had done nothing in the longest time. I had put so much time and energy on writing new books (isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?) that these two little gems had simply faded into the background, a spot they really didn’t deserve.

So now I’m really doing a lot of publicity for them, but it’s making me think about how my – or anyone’s – career should be prioritized. I only have so much time. I have to write. I have to publish. I have a family and a life and other obligations.

What has to give?

What indeed.